When skiing the famous Vallée Blanche on the Mont Blanc Massif, having good weather is imperative. We pick a day, months in advance, hope that it will be nice, and then check in with the guides a few days before to see if the weather looks like it will cooperate.
Last year when the Saveur the Journey (the small culinary and adventure company I run) group tackled the 20 km long, 9000 vertical feet backcountry descent we had cloudy weather and windblown powder. We were treated to some fantastic views but sometimes the high peaks and low valleys were shrouded in clouds. This year our good karma must have been flowing because we were treated to a beautifully clear blue sky with bright sun, no wind, and about 2 feet of fresh powder — what dreams are made of.
We weren’t the only ones with the plan to ski the Vallee Blanche that day. Ludovic Erard, our guide, of La Montagne en Douceur, jostled with other guides of all nationalities to obtain our tickets for the Aiguille du Midi Gondola which would carry us to 12,600 feet. In typical French fashion, the line rewarded elbows and pushing more than patience. Meanwhile our other guide, Francois Xavier (nicknamed “Fix, more about him: @fixguide), outfitted our group with avalanche safety equipment including a harness, beacon, shovel, and probe.
Only a few of our group had backcountry skiing experience so there was lots of excitement and some nervousness surrounding the process of gearing up. Ludovic and Fix carry a certification from the French High Mountain Guide Association and they are able to guide backcountry skiing, ice climbing, mountaineering, paragliding, and rock climbing. They are extremely calm but animated, proficient in both hard and soft skills, seem to lack any sort of ego, and are fun to be around. One member of our group had decided not to come on the descent of the Valléee Blanche because of the dramatic entry walk along a sharp ridgeline with thousands of feet of nothing on one side. However she made a late inning change and opted in that morning. Ludovic and Fix made sure she felt comfortable.
We crammed ourselves into the big cable car which whisked us up the mountain. The span is huge and it was impressive to think about the people who built this gondola in 1955, under extreme conditions. We jostled for space at the windows to look over Chamonix. Reaching the top at 12,600 feet we were treated to calm weather and amazing views. Temperatures were in the high teens but the sun was shining strong. We had a bit of time to mill about, take pictures, and prepare ourselves. The summit of Mont Blanc loomed another 3000 vertical feet above us, covered in massive blocks of snow and ice. We strapped our skis on our packs, roped up, and began a very funny looking crab-like walk to the entry to the Vallée Blanche.
The corridors that we were walking were not big enough to stand up with our skis on our packs so we had to bend forward and shuffle along to the ice cave that opens into the Vallée Blanche. Alternatively you could ready yourself at the ice cave but it was crowded. Fix and Ludovic attached crampons (we did not have crampons) and brought up the rear of each group of six. The walk along the narrow ridge was impressive but felt very secure. A path about 3 feet wide had been stamped in the snow and a thick rope made a handrail. With ski poles in one hand and the other hand on the rope it was easy to walk the ridge. Below us to our left, Chamonix spread out and the bright sun glinted off the fresh snow. After about ten minutes we reached a flat spot where we un-roped, clipped into our skis, and got ready for the waiting fields of powder.
The conditions for skiing the Vallée Blanche were perfect, which is very rare. Our guides had already cancelled six trips that year because of bad weather, and during at least one of the other six that they successfully led, they had to rely on GPS to make it down because visibility was so bad. Due to the perfect conditions, the top was crowded as we worked our way down a short steep section that already had fluffy bumps.
There are many routes one can take down the Vallée Blanche, and it is highly recommended to go with a guide. This is the high mountains and on a glacier. Crevasses exist and avalanches are possible. The glacier is constantly changing, and following the tracks of others doesn’t necessarily mean a safe route (for example, they may lead to a section that requires rappelling). An intermediate level skier can ski the main route of the Vallée Blanche provided they have some experience with off piste skiing. Our guides recommended skis larger than 90 mm underfoot to help deal with deep powder and several in our group exchanged their on piste skis for wider planks for the Vallée Blanche day.
In checking out everyone’s skis as we waited at the top of the Aiguille du Midi, I observed mostly wider (100-115mm underfoot) skis with tech bindings. While Dynafit probably made up the majority, PLUM was also very popular (it is a French company after all). There were some frame bindings but not a lot. I spotted a few diehard telemarkers and lots of regular downhill bindings (often on rental skis). Of course there were also snowboarders (I overheard a woman snowboarder saying, “skis are a tool, a snowboard is a toy”). I was riding my (well actually my wife’s) trusty K2 Gotbacks with Dynafit Radical FT 12 bindings which performed great in the deep snow.
Fix led us down the first pitch, a gentle slope that already had tracks snaking down its face. The snow was excellent, light, and deep enough that I felt like a porpoise as my skis flexed and unflexed in the deep snow pushing me upward as I exited each turn. Then we had to keep our speed as we encountered a long flat area where some poling was required. Our token snowboarder, François (he is French and was equipped with poles) hitched a lift from Ludovic who pulled him with a rope while François pushed with all he had. We watched another snowboarder being pulled with a rope by a guide and he seemed to have a more relaxed “along for the ride” approach. Morale for snowboarders among guides didn’t seem to be very high but Ludovic was thankful for François’ effort.
Around us rose incredible jagged peaks, covered in ice, snow, or some so steep they were just bare rock. The Vallée Blanche is enormous and one feels like a snow flea in a dramatic and huge expanse of snow. We were close to the border with Italy and skiers were arriving from the Italian side (the valley on the Italian side is called the Vallée Noire, the “dark valley” as it is often in shadow). Across the valley we could barely make out a small group of skiers skinning their way up a steep face. They looked like ants and even when you stared at them you could barely see them move. Their zigzagging skin track, however, showed considerable progress.
For most of our group this was their first time skiing in the backcountry. Many seemed incredulous in the pleasure obtained from “skiing up,” but later when we watched those ant sized skiers laying down sweet turns on a untracked, powder-filled face, perhaps there was a flicker of admiration. Some of us dreamed of the chance to be able to spend a few days in these perfect conditions, skinning high into the virgin snowfields, while it appeared that to most others in our group the idea of uphill skiing sounded like the thoughts of a deranged person.
We descended some steeper pitches with Fix leading the way and the group spacing ourselves out behind him. The snow was some of the best I had ever skied, light, knee deep and untracked. The feeling of bounding through the snow was amazing and the surroundings and views could not have been better. While the deep snow was an unequaled pleasure for those used to riding powder it was a worthy challenge for those in our group who were not used to floating through the white. We took our time with frequent breaks to take pictures and catch our breath (altitude does have an effect).
Our group of ten plus two guides was a wonderful crew that got along well and supported each other. Brought together by a love of skiing and eating (especially cheese…and wine) we had already spent the last four days together skiing and eating our way through the Portes du Soleil (12 interconnected resorts in France and Switzerland). As eating was important to everyone (guides are almost always very good eaters) we stopped at the Refuge de Requin, a stone building with 57 beds, a restaurant, and beer. The sunny day had everyone sitting outside on picnic tables and the servers consolidated a few tables of people to give us a table to ourselves. A group of “Choucas,” an alpine crowlike bird with a yellow beak, watched us carefully from perches in the snow a few feet away.
We ordered hearty dishes of boeuf bourguignon, croziflette (tiny local square buckwheat pasta with bacon, onions and the local reblochon cheese), and lasagna (it was in France but you could see Italy). A hot meal in the sun with a million dollar view and a cold beer was an experience that will be remembered for a long time.
I have observed that I draw considerable amounts of pleasure from the contrasts of being in the backcountry. The feeling of effortlessly charging down a line gained through the sweat and toil on the uphill, or finding a protected nook out of the wind to eat a quick snack after trudging through an exposed skin track make the highs higher. The contrast of being in such an awe inspiring and humbling environment as the Vallée Blanche where focus and concentration are necessary and where we can feel our frailty, to sitting at a rough wooden table and being served not only steaming plates of food but cold beer is truly sublime. Maybe this is why people like taking their ski boots off at the end of the day so much (not me, mine are super comfy!).
After lunch we continued working our way down, navigating a passage between a large crevasse partially covered with snow (by navigating I mean skiing next to but not into). Most of the remaining skiing was cruising through the wide valley on the gently sloping glacier. We passed beautiful blocks of ice, shining blue and green in the sun. Then we stopped and divided into two groups. Group one was those who were done skiing and wanted to take the Montenvers train back to Chamonix. Group two was those that wanted the challenge of skiing all the way back to the parking lot where our French (Renaut) and German (Mercedes) vans were no doubt arguing over the proper pronunciation of “apres ski.”
The train station used to be at the level of the glacier but our warming climate has caused the glacier to retreat at an alarming rate. Now there are over 400 hundred steps required to reach the train station from the level of the glacier. The rest of us descended another few kilometers on ski before strapping the skis on our packs, shedding a few layers, and hiking for about 15 minutes up a short slope. Even though it is far from anywhere, France once again showed considerable merit for ski touring as there was a small shack selling beer at the top of the hike.
After a short rest we donned our skis and slid down a narrow, winding cat track through the woods all the way back to where we parked. While the cat track wasn’t amazing skiing, the novelty of skiing right back to the vans was well worth it for most people. We sent a round of high fives, removed our avy gear, and then went for a round of truly delicious beer at the Bighorn Bistro (run by an American family and located across from the Aiguille du Midi Gondola). As we sipped on hoppy pale ales, light lagers, and even a few imperial stouts, the sun slowly sank on the pure white face of Mont Blanc.
(Guest blogger Aaron Schorsch is the owner of Saveur the Journey, which specializes in outdoor adventures with a culinary and cultural focus to Europe, Japan, and beyond. He is a chef with a background in anthropology who loves combining skiing, eating, and travel. Aaron lives in Davidson, NC with his wife and young daughter.)